To borrow ring announcer Michael Buffer’s trademarked phrase: “Let’s get ready to rumble.”
Though the phrase is normally associated with pugilistic endeavors, it could also be a reference for the nine-team football crowd battling week in and week out for Empire 8 Conference regular season laurels.
The Empire 8 gets underway on Saturday, with the main event being St. John Fisher’s visit to SUNY Cortland in a 1 p.m. showdown of nationally-ranked squads. The No. 21 ranked Cardinals and No. 15 ranked Red Dragons, respectively, ended up sharing first place in the final conference standings last season with matching 6-2 marks in this autumn-long struggle for conference bragging rights.
So even though St. John Fisher is off to a 2-0 start with wins over Michigan’s Olivet College and at Springfield College in Massachusetts, venerable head coach Paul Vosburgh isn’t taking too much stock in that early-season success.
“It’s not the Empire 8. That’s different,” states Vosburgh simply of those wins, the coach now in his 26th season on the St. John Fisher campus located in the Rochester suburb of Pittsford.
“Not that I don’t think our opponents aren’t good, but the Empire 8 is a different league. It’s one of the top leagues in Division III,” Vosburgh points out. “Every game is a big one, so they (the players) had better be ready.”
Cortland is also 2-0, holding off Heidelberg University in Ohio 30-28 on opening day before romping past Framingham State out of Massachusetts 49-21 in a non-conference home opener last weekend.
Head coach Dan MacNeill knew what his program was getting into when Cortland exited the New Jersey Athletic Conference to join in the Empire 8 a year ago, and the new league lived up his expectations.
“You’ve got to be game-on every week. There’s just not a big difference (between teams),” noted MacNeill, whose Cortland team had to pull out overtime wins over both Utica and Hartwick en route to last year’s first place showing. “I’m not going to disparage the coaching from one league to the other, but this is a well-coached league and the talent is very, very comparable.”
So even though the Cortland-St John Fisher winner will emerge as the team to beat in the conference, there’s a long, long ways to go before things conclude two weeks into November.
“You have to watch how magnified you make the game,” warns MacNeill.
“It’s a journey, and they could have very well said it’s over with in their third game last year and they didn’t,” he added of the Cardinals, who closed out the regular season with six straight wins. “Their journey wasn’t over. Anything can happy in this conference, and that’s just what took place. They kept plugging along, we stubbed our toes twice, and look what happened. We both had to play the last week for the championship.”
THE CARDINALS ARE directed by fifth-year senior quarterback and team captain Matt Naton, a West Genesee product who has already thrown for 497 yards and seven touchdowns this season.
One of Naton’s favorite receivers is junior Mike Collichio, who suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in last season’s 34-17 loss to Cortland. He has caught 10 passes for 238 yards and three touchdowns, while junior James Chambers is the top Cardinals receiver so far with 16 catches including a TD grab.
Junior running back Tony Fusco has rushed for 166 yards on 35 carries for an offense that piled up the points beating both Olivet 52-10 and Springfield 35-21.
Defensively, junior linebacker and team captain David Carroll has been in on 23 tackles including three quarterback sacks. Senior linebacker Chris Smith has also been able to get to opposing QBs, having been in on four sacks.
St. John Fisher also has two Cortland High graduates on the roster, sophomore safety Teddy Pristash and freshman quarterback Jake Prignon. Coach Vosburgh indicated Pristash may be among the players traveling for the Cortland game, while Prignon has been hurt and will miss a weekend junior varsity contest.
St. John Fisher had won three previous meetings against Cortland — two in post-season ECAC Bowl games — before last year’s loss at home. The Red Dragons lead the overall series 5-3.
“Cortland is an excellent team. There’s a reason they were in the national playoffs last year and there’s a reason they’re nationally ranked,” said Coach Vosburgh.
Having both teams nationally ranked heading into this game doesn’t mean much to Vosburgh, however. “I’m not a guy who looks at the polls very much. It doesn’t mean anything until the second week in November,” he said.
THE DRAGONS ARE directed by senior quarterback Steven Ferreria, who tied a school record when he threw for a touchdown in his 13th consecutive game in last Saturday’s win over Framingham State. He has passed for 483 yards and four touchdowns, and has also rushed for 129 yards and three TDs.
Senior Jon Mannix tops the receivers with eight catches for 196 yards and a touchdown, while sophomore running back Alex Wasserman earned weekly plaudits after returning a kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown, scoring on a 46-yard screen pass and blocking a punt against Framingham.
Senior inside linebacker Matt Goodman had adjusted to moving from offense to defense well, and leads the Red Dragons with 21 tackles. Pre-season All-America safety Carson Lassiter intercepted a pair of passes last weekend and made eight tackles.
Still, turnovers in the red zone, penalties and missed tackles are early-season concerns for Coach MacNeill. What he did like was how his team shrugged off those mistakes last week, especially after having to hold off a later Heidelberg comeback bid in the previous game under similar circumstances.
Coach MacNeill even sent an e-mail out to parents and Alumni accenting that fact.
“I was anxious to see the resolve, and it was good. The kids are really focused on it,” said MacNeill, as some first half mishaps last week didn’t prevent Cortland from building a 42-14 lead by intermission. “What it speaks to is an ever-emerging team and an ever-developing team. And that’s what you look for as a coach.”